THE KOMSOMOL:
AFTER 70 YEARS NOTHING HAS CHANGED

by Curtis Minich

March 22, 1988
Political Science 498
Prof. T. Friedgut
University of Pennsylvania

The Komsomol of the Soviet Union is a curious feature of that nation's political system. While having a unique relationship with the Communist Party, it also exists as a typical product of the regime's totalitarian rule. The Party has prescribed a certain amount of responsibility to the Komsomol, but it is questionable as to how much political influence is vested there. For a critical analysis of its usefulness, a measure of its political influence is needed and, also, a specific description of what particular role it does play.

Unique to the "All-Union Leninist Communist League," as it is formally known, is the extent to which the Party relies on it to fulfill its assigned tasks. It is evident that the Young Communist League (YCL) is failing to perform as effectively as is necessary. The YCL will be marking its seventieth anniversary this year. Self-examination is presently being made and the problems which account for its failure will be realized, if they have not been already. These problems are essentially those which derive from the Party's insistent desire to circumscribe and even repress political interest and opinions. In this respect, the YCL is not an unusual Soviet institutional product. What is necessary to realize, though, is that due to the importance of its ordained function, it is a critical element of the Party's strategy for reaching an advanced stage of communism in the USSR. The YCL's role in sculpting the youngest generation's political attitudes of ideology, as well as its natural tendency to influence the youth's attitudes toward the Party (and its methods of political repression), give it peculiar significance. It is especially interesting now to see if glasnost will give enough momentum to produce a change in the youth's image or the YCL may become more favorable thus averting future problems and detours on the road to communism. What is certain is that after seventy years of restrictive control, the Party cannot risk tightening its grasp, for the youth are far more likely than ever before of making their disaffections with the system known in ways that the Party most assuredly would hope to avert.

The Komsomol's place in Soviet politics is not clearly discernible to the foreign observer. It surely has no equivalent in the liberal-democratic governments of the West. But, more surprising, is that even the casual Soviet political observer would probably be at a loss if asked to define the specific role and nature of the YCL. A naive citizen would probably credit the League with performing a significant function in formulating political policy, particularly where youth are affected among other tasks.

It is most important to realize the relationship between the Party and the YCL before making any analysis of the League's role. Because the Party is the totalitarian source of political power anything that the YCL or any Soviet institution does is with the consent and probably the instructions of the Party. Is the observer correct in his depiction? Is there even a mild form of political pluralism and discussion between the two? Or, to what extent can the Komsomol, be viewed as separate, or even an "independently acting social organization," as it is labeled in the
CPSU rules?

To say that the Bolsheviks created the YCL may not be wholly true. There were a number of youth associations that grew out of the unrest of 1917, though the majority were probably oriented toward social recreational objectives. Nevertheless, being more pragmatic than having an actual concern for the youth's political ideas, the Party opportunistically advertised "itself as a champion of youth's 'active participation in the economic and political struggle of the working class.'"1 In 1918, the first Komsomol Congress was held. During the first year of the Revolution before this Congress, the Bolsheviks were wary of formally organizing a youth communist group. Instead, they sought to control the separate independent groups from within. But the first Congress was an initiative of the Bolshevik Party even though many of the delegates were not Party members. By the second Congress in 1919, the Party was well on its way toward assuming total control of the League. "The congress expressed its complete adherence to the program and tactics of the Party and recognized its own central committee as immediately subordinate to the Party Central Committee."2 Even in the first year when certain amount of political debate was necessary, the YCL "reelected in magnified form the opposition and disillusionment discernible in the party itself."3 The Party's hostility toward deviances from official Party-line has restricted even the expression of political opinion ever since.

The purpose of its creation was not to increase political inputs. This demonstrates that the League is not capable of political influence. Having control of the organization by its second congress, the Party has never, in the intervening years, given it away. What ability that the youth may have ever had to express themselves has been rendered inefficacious. "To a large extent, it is the fundamental task of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to prevent these and other social groupings from acquiring the self-consciousness and political techniques thatwould enable them to articulate group demands."4

For the purposes of this study, what is actually meant by the vague idea of "political influence"? It could mean the actual formulation and implementation of specific policies and procedures. Conversely, political influence may be construed as something which is a byproduct of being a Party member, or politically involved as a member of a soviet committee, for example. Since we are evaluating the role of the Komsomol and how it is responsible for the current condition of the YCL, we can deduce that by political influence we mean some ability to use and express initiative in helping formulate political policy independently, which would give a member some sort of satisfaction. It Is clear that because of the suffocating guidance of the Party, the YCL does not have this ability. It is an ignorance of just how closely the Party guides the YCL that leads a naive observer to believe that the League has some influence. The degree of Party guidance will be discussed later as a reason for the disaffection and ineffectiveness of the YCL.

Aryeh L. Unger perfomed a study on the political participation of the YCL in 1981. While he admits that "political participation is both a vague and a vague concept,"5 one can be sure that whatever it means, whether by a communist or a liberal-democratic perception, is that where there is political influence there must first be political participation. It is necessary here to at least give political participation a rigid meaning that includes more than just involvement of citizens in public affairs, including the expression of ceremonial supports and assistance in the administration of communities or the implementation of regime policies."6 It was a more rigid definition that Unger used to preclude that, "we study political participation, after all, not only for its presumed impact on decision-making (at whatever level) but also for its presumed impact on the participants themselves."7 Unger concluded that the interviewees of his study did not believe their participation to be effective,8 whatever the level might have been. Some even went as far as calling the Komsomol " a joke" and "impotent".9

So, the League is not influential for the simple, if not evident, reason that it was never meant to be. Or was it? If it was not intended that the YCL be a helpful actor in policymaking then what was it to be? Historically the basic tasks assigned to the Komsomol have not changed although emphasis is put on different ones at different times.

If the YCL was just used as a supporter during the early years of revolution, then its job was only to "generate the momentum of innovation, "10 and nothing more. The League was simply a cheerleader during the Civil War period.ll This inactivity led some to call for "renewed demands for the organizational democracy and local autonomy,"l2 and they made themselves heard at the Third Congress. Lenin himself hypocritically downplayed the need for the youth's influence in politics, after seeming to call for it in the early years when he disparately needed the youth's support against the older adherents of more mild forms of revolution. "Lenin - who before the revolution had scoffed at efforts to dissuade youth from political involvement as 'hypocritical and obscurantist' - now insisted in effect that politics was not their concern . . ."13 He stated at this Congress that the tasks of youth in general, not only the YCL, could be summed up as a single word: learn.14 He thus ignored not only the idea that the YCL should be involved in actual policy-making but, also, that Komsomolites must be different from ordinary youth, remember that at this time the membership for the YCL was very selective.

The New Economic Policy caused much dissension within the League, if not in all areas of political discussion. This resulted in persecution of the opposition elements who rallied behind Trotsky's idea that the youth had a right to form its own opinions 'to transform them into flesh and blood.' Thousands of Trotskyists were expelled.15

As for Stalin, he never gave the YCL a chance to develop as an influential policy source either. As early as 1925, he warned the editors of the main Komsomol newspaper that it "was 'not an organ for discussion, but an organ which is, first and foremost positive, which gives readers slogans and viewpoints accepted by the party.'"l6 Later, in 1936, the Party determined that it was necessary to revise the Program of the League which had been intact since 1921,17 and "under the banner of Stalin's new watchword 'cadres decide everything,' the main task of the Komsomol was no declared to be communist indoctrination of the youth. The Komsomols were not to participate in economic questions as actively as they had done before; their major attention was to be turned to the educational task."18 Even after World War II, "students were encouraged to apply themselves to their studies and avoid spending too much time on extra-curricular political activities of the Komsomol."l9

It must be noted also that ever since the First Congress the YCL was denied representation on the executive committees of soviets.20 Even as individuals in the soviets, Komsomolites "should participate as Soviet citizens and individual Komsomol members rather than with any aim of directing the soviets on behalf of the Komsomol as an organization."21

Despite the triviality of League involvement in politics, there has always been a plethora of party rhetoric stating otherwise. This must be noted for two reasons. First, one must not be misled by this propaganda. Second, by covering up its own shortcomings in extending democratic right to the citizens, the Party is actually making the situation worse by being hypocritical. As we will see later, this only exacerbates discontentment among the younger generation. Examples of the deceit are prolific. In a magazine published for distribution in the US in 1962, the Soviet writer
says, "The Komsomol has great influence and prestige, and it recommendations and proposals are always listened to and most often adopted."22 Brezhnev said in his speech to the YCL's Fifteenth Congress that, "the Party's new decisions open up broad horizon for development of the initiative of the YCL organizations . . ."2 Khrushchev said at the Fourteenth Congress (in 1962) that the YCL actively participates in building a new society.24 Maybe one explanation for the leaders' constant recitation of the Komsomols' participation in politics is because Lenin had prescribed it in those first few years. Lenin demonstrated that without active participation in public affairs that book knowledge of communism is worthless. One can only become a good communist if he applies the book knowledge.25 Thus the Party is seeming to justify that Komsomolites are becoming the perfect communists in their 'active participation'. Taking all of this into consideration, one can classify the YCL as an element of the political system of the USSR. David Lane forms the description that technically the Komsomol is a part of the political leadership because by nature it is not in a "middle range of power, nor is it a facet of mass participation (although arguably it has become that). Also, this is because of its unique relationship with the Party as its main helper and instrument in building communism. But, the Komsomol is as divorced from political power as the other institutions of the political system such as trade unions and the government organizations.26

The Komsomol is not an influential source in Soviet politics,because the Party does not want it to be. There are several specific constraints that are responsible for this though. One of these is the nature of the Soviet system and the party's incessant desire to restrain the YCL. Another is the behavior of the YCL leaders, as agents of the party. Third, the tendencies of contemporary youth are undermining the effectiveness of the League. These factors are sometimes interrelated.

Vladimir Shlapentokh accuses the system for causing the youth to became disheartened. He even goes so far as to say that "young people tend to suffer most from the arbitrariness and corruption of Soviet officials," because young people are most helpless in confronting officials and that they inherently react more strongly then older people to the inequities of the bureaucracy.27 He also blames the stagnation of the bureaucracy for the monopolization of important positlon by the old and the very old.28

Sergei Zamascikov, who has held office in the Komsomol, is very critical of the organization. In 1987, he observed that the Komsomol "is an organization of conservatives, conformists, bureaucrats . . . for many years the Komsomol has been vigilantly opposed to anything that would be attractive to young people . . ."29 He noticed that by the early 1980's, offices were occupied by young careerists who were busy collecting dues and writing reports of their achievements to impress Party leaders.30 Along with the fact that the overwhelming majority of leadership positions are held by older party members (who, by holding office, can continue their Komsomol membership), this shows that it is not surprising that the youth feel neglected and unimportant.

Also, there is confusion as to what type of organization it is. While the League is used by the Party as a training camp for future leaders, it can also be viewed as a mass organization. Zamascikov notes, "Gradually the Komsomol grew from a volunteer organization of young zealots to an unofficial ministry for youth affairs."31 Just because the current membership is around 38 million, it is by rights a mass organization. The organization has overextended itself by accepting less enthusiastic members. S.I. Ploss notes that, by 1940, the "Komsomol was shorn of any identity as a body of 'chosen' youth and began to assume the form which has since characterized it- that of a mass organization. . ."32; "mass membership is diluted membership."33 Many of the rank-and-flle members join because it is the thing to do, especially while in high school, and some of these need to be "brainwashed" as Kristina Blass recalls in a letter to Pravda about why she quit the Komsomol.34

Another problem which keeps it from serving its purpose is that it causes disinterest among the rank-and-file members. "To judge from the tone and content of the Komsomol press, the reaction of members is all too frequently one of utter boredom and apathy ... since rank-and-file members have practically no voice in Komsomol affairs,. . ., it is no wonder that they lack an active interest."35 However, it may not be the total fault of the Komsomol that these members are being bored. There is evidence that the younger generations are just naturally less interested in
politics. "To judge from these surveys,the reaction of most students to politically oriented activities is one of passive indifference ."36 Again we see that it may be the system which causes this attitude, for "it may reflect a natural reaction to politically oppressive conditions in the USSR ..."37 or just the inconveniences and discomforts of Soviet life which are attributed to the policies of the regime.38

The lack of meaningful participation and the abundance of contradicting Party rhetoric may combine to increase the rank-and-file members' indifference. Unger reasons that "the combination of compulsion and formalism which characterizes participation in the Komsomol . . .clearly provides no scope at all for the development of a sense of efficacy. Indeed, one might well hypothesize that it has the opposite effect, that the induction of the individual into the 'spectacle' of Komsomol . . . activities impresses upon him the utter futility of his participation. . ."39 The members are further disheartened if they realize the extent to which the Party's rhetoric, about how useful the Komsomol is, falls short of the true description. Also, the clash between the Party's call for initiative (only meant in rhetoric) and discipline (which leads to the inability to effectively participate) causes much disarray in the YCL.40

Kassof attributes much of the ineffectiveness of the YCL to the historic lack of trust that the leaders of the Soviet Union have for the people. He says that,"...the Komsomol is simply one more of the many institutions through which the Soviet leaders seek to exert totalitarian controls over the populace...the Komsomol is no more likely to be greeted with enthusiasm than are its adult counterparts. So long as the regime maintains a basic mistrust of its citizenry, the Komsomol will continue to function in this negative capacity."41

Because the Komsomol is to help the Party in labor recruitment it often gets some negative publicity due to this unpopular task.42 Also, the YCL and the Party always encourages, rather forcefully, not only the fulflllment of labor tasks summer camps in the North and the West, but the post-graduate job assignments in those areas as well. This receives strong protest from young people who have learned to enjoy the advantages of urban life.

The YCL leaders do not help matters, either. First, the YCL leaders serve as agents of the Party. "Western scholars have generally argued that the leadership stratum of the Youth League dutifully manipulates the rank-and-file to conform to the demands and expectations of the DPS."43 This results in increasing the number of grievances among the Komsomolites and even membership loss.44 Soviet writers have blamed some of the Komsomol's failures on the poor training of youth leaders which in turn causes them to misdirect the energies of the youth in a positive and constructive manner."45 Often the Party's remedy for this leadership problem is to increase the amount of guidance that it has over the YCL, making things worse yet with respect to the fact that discipline restrains the Komsomol.

Are the young generations of today different in nature and their attitudes than in the preceding ones? If so, this could explain some changes in the nature of the YCL itself and its inability to control youth today, like it used to. Interestingly, Boris Ponomaryov, a former CPSU Central Committee member, made the observation in 1973 that,"'The middle-aged and the aged often do not know how to approach the youth, 'Lenin wrote, 'for the youth must of necessity advance to socialism in a different way, by other paths, in other forms, in other circumstances than their fathers.' That is why set, rigid formulas are intolerable in working with the youth."46 But, as we have noted, the YCL has been operating under the same strict obedience to the Party throughout its history. Ploss wrote in 1958 that he believed the YCL would remain In the future what it had been for most of its history - "an organization not of youth but of, by, and for the Communist Party."47 All Soviet sociological studies of the last two decades showed that there is an inverse correlation between age and critical attitudes toward the official ideology,48 but "political elite has preferred to ignore the changing attitudes of young people toward Soviet ideology, despite their serious implications."49 Also, the regime has balked in response to the fanat movement, a violent protest of self-expression by high school students in Moscow. "The passivity of the authorities toward the fanat movement is without precedent."50 It may be that the Soviet leaders cannot deal with this problem because they are aware that "the Soviet system could be implicated in a development beyond its control."51 This clearly demonstrates a lack of flexibility, despite Ponomaryev's demand for it. "The fact that the Komsomol completely ignores the fanat movement may be perhaps an indicator of the declining effectiveness of the organization, . . . which, does not appear to exert much real influence on Soviet young people."52

Another point, on which party guidance has lost control over the youth and thus YCL effectiveness, is the Party's tendency to neglect the important problems which affect contemporary youth. Western trade, the higher standard of living, more free time, as well as political indifference and immorality have resulted in new problems in the youths' generation that the Party never had to deal with before. Again its failure to solve them has resulted in loss of Komsomol control over various widespread enthusiasts and informal organizations. Readers of Pravda have criticized "the Komsomol for... avoiding the acute and pressing problems of young people ..."53

There has been more than just evidence of new Interests and tendencies among the youth. A youth culture developed in the mid-1950's and since the mid-1970's. It has become mass in character in the Soviet Union.54 This has caused several damaging problems for the YCL. Crime has risen, ideological fervor has decreased, and the number of informal youth organizations has increased. Boredom has caused the youth to turn to liquor.55 Leaders are concerned that youth are not patriotic enough.56 Of all things to happen, a "nazi" demonstration broke out in Moscow in 1982.57 Also, Russian orthodoxy is becoming more popular among the youth.58 The major difference today is that youths are more pragmatic, less ideological.59 Furthermore, "among a minority, dissatisfaction is reflected in nascent political unrest or in juvenile delinquency and hooliganism."60 Lastly, "at all levels or the social hierarchy, Soviet youth have increasingly demonstrated their unwillingness to subordinate personal gratification to the collective welfare."61 With these changes making life a little bit more satisfiable, "how can young people be encouraged to take the concrete steps necessary to further socialism, when ... it is comfortable 'to live close to socialism'?"62 Therefore, because "the mentality of contemporary Soviet youth is radically different from that of earlier generations,"63 the YCL is finding it much more difficult to keep them in line and to direct this towards being perfect Communists.

With an insight into the character and the shortcomings of the Komsomol, one must look to see where it is headed. The main question is just how open is the disaffection with the Komsomol? Peter H. Juviler maintains that the youth are bound by patriotism and national pride. They also have a basic acceptance for the superiority of socialism over capitalism.64 He continues, that only if the pressure "even reaches a point where it cannot be ignored,the party-regime will feel secure enough to move in a direction of genuine tolerance...65 Nicholas Daniloff agrees that youth disaffection is not nearly strong enough to cause Soviet society to crumble.56

Even the Soviets themselves realize the importance of protecting the YCL at this time. A reader of Pravda writes that the League should be an experimental base for the Party and all of society.67 But, because the Party is forced to keep control "the regime is compelled by the logic of its own rule to perpetuate the Komsomol in its present role and form.68 Actually, there are only two alternatives. One is a genuine youth organization, but this would be seen as a threat to Party authority. The second is no organization at all which would make disaffection much harder to check. Nether alternative is possible in a totalitarian state.69

Something is presently happening for the first time in the history of the YCL. Independent political groups have been created in response to Gorbachev's glasnost policy. They are challenging the authority of the YCL. What has put a strain on the newly formed relationship between the state and the informal organizations is essentially an umbra of mutual distrust.70 None of the organizations are sure about what should be done including the YCL and the Party. An internal draft was written by the Komsomol's Central Committee late in 1987. It rather harshly criticized the organization by saying, "The creative quest of young people should be secured above all within the framework of existing Komsomol organizatlons and committees. There is no need for the creation of alternative organizations."71 The document admitted "that many of the groups serve a valuable function" but that "the impermissability of uncontrolled activities by youth associations, especially of a sociopolitical nature" must be known.72 Viktor I. Mironenko, the national head of the Komsomol, said just this year that he sees no contradiction between the existence of the Komsomol and the widest spectrum of different kinds of groups but that each member of every group must still obey the Komsomol code.73 How much autonomy will be given away by the YCL and to how many organizations remains to be seen.

Finally, to see just how much hope there is for an effective restructuring of the Komsomol it will be very beneficial to look at Gorbachev's speech (his first) to the Twentieth Komsomol Congress an April 17, 1987. His perceptions of the problems and the contemporary needs are quite consistent with those outlined throughout this paper.

He states the need to restructure the Komsomol first of all. He continues, "Comrades, the party's main task, if one is talking about the problems of the cuuntry's youth movement today, is to open up the widest prospects for young people, to make the doors wide open to them everywhere - in every area of economic, scientific, and technical progress, social creativity, and spiritual development. This means giving young men and women scope for independence, freeing them from petty surveillance and supervision, and equating them by means of real deeds and the exercise of real responsibility - by trust." He says that the most important areas in work with youth are to develop personal initiative and to create conditions for the mass participation of youth. Gorbachev counters the argument about a lack of initiative and autonomy in the Komsomol claiming that Komsolites were deprived of autonomy from the very beginning because their leaders watched every step that they made. "Is this what party leadership of the Komsomol really mean?" he asks. He continues, "But surely it is only by participating in the political process and all matters pertaining to life and society that it is possible to be genuine fighters for the cause of Lenin. . ." In the modern and complex world there are certain forces in it that strive to push false values, mislead the young, lead them away from active political struggle and participation in social processes, and that propel the into a world of everyday cares so as to ensure that they are politically emasculated.'14

Gorbachev has a good basic analysis of the main problems with the Komsomol. What he does not do though is to go into detail of what he specifically means by "restructuring the YCL." Is the infrastructure repairable or should the Komsomol be dissolved as Zamascilov proposes? The Komsomol is very old and it has grown stale. Allen Kassof wrote in 1965 that, "barring fundamental changes on the Soviet scene, the youth organizations and the program they embody will remain enduring features of the system."75 Is Gorbachev willing to make a "fundamental change"? If he does not, will the young generation realize his mistake when they in turn become the leaders of the Sovlet Union?

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